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The Mistake My Teachers Made Taught Me a Valuable Lesson About Autism

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If you are in a position to provide guidance to a person with autism, please hear my story. Please learn from the mistakes my teachers made.

The year was 2001. I had a very strong interest in malls, which still continues to this day. At the age of 10, I was writing the names of malls instead of my own name on assignments. One time, the whole class was working on a project involving illustrating books. Naturally, my version of the project was centered around malls. I became so engrossed in the project one day, I stayed behind in the classroom when I was supposed to leave with the other students to attend another class.

I believe that these issues were the reason my teachers decided to ban my special interests from the classroom. They removed my artwork from the wall because it involved the names of malls. I was not allowed to mention my special interests in the school building, lest I have to write 10 times that I would not do so. It felt like censorship. One time, I let a “Lloyd Center” slip out, and I had to write ten times that I would not say it again. I called this rule the “No-Mentioning-Malls Rule.” And I loathed it so much.

Schoolgirl rising her hand at geography lesson
Photo source: Thinkstock Images

During the month and a half that the rule was in effect, I dreaded going to school. This was especially unfortunate, because prior to this, I actually enjoyed going to school. Children who enjoy school as much as I did are a rarity. I remember crying myself to sleep at night because of the rule. I can remember being worried about the welfare of my favorite malls the morning after the 2001 Nisqually earthquake. The rule complicated matters when I wanted to talk to someone about my fears. Fortunately, the teacher’s aide I was talking to allowed me to momentarily discuss the malls with her.

I worked with a friend to develop a new language to get around the rule. I named the language “Clairesian,” after the friend’s nickname, which itself was derived from the Claire’s accessory store commonly found in malls. We came up with new words to refer to malls. For example, “Lloyd Center” was referred to as “Scwanza,” and Lancaster Mall was “Magekilanzo.” Using this system, I was successful in talking about malls without getting caught.

The rule was lifted by April 2001, and I rejoiced. Unfortunately, it returned in October 2001 during my sixth grade year. At this point, I began using a system of initials to circumvent the rule. For example, mall names like “Boise Towne Square” and “Westlake Center” would respectively become “BTSe” and “WCr” under this system. I remember a story the whole class had to read. It was about a girl who lost her brother. He had been a source of calm and happiness for her. Her father would not allow her to talk about him after he died. I have never related so much to a fictional character as I did with this story.

For the next 11 years, I struggled to forgive my teachers for making this rule. I would write my own songs and rewrite existing songs to express how I felt. Resolution came when I confronted my fifth grade teacher about the rule. She thanked me for sharing my point of view and told me that it was a valuable lesson for her to learn. In an unusual twist of irony, I learned she was blessed with a daughter who has autism. Today, we are good friends and I have met her and her daughters face-to-face a couple of times.

I forgive my teachers, but I will never forget the rule. It would be a disservice to autistic people everywhere to pretend it didn’t happen. The lesson I have taken from my experiences is this: People with autism are inseparable from their interests. Correcting improper behavior (such as me skipping a class or not writing my actual name on my assignments) is one thing. Oppression of special interests is a whole different story. It is a line that is never to be crossed. As a result of the rule, I have learned to stay true to myself and what I love in spite of such wrongdoing.

I hope to use my story as a warning to those with an autistic person in their care. I do not want anyone to have to deal with a “No-Mentioning-Malls Rule” like I did. Special interests bring comfort, joy and growth. My myriad interests have inspired many improvements in my life, such as losing nearly 70 pounds to fit roller coasters, and getting my driver’s license so I could visit my favorite cities, bridges and theme parks. I have considered careers in civil engineering and computer repair.

Special interests are vital to the well-being of autistic people like me. Do not oppress our interests.

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Originally published: April 15, 2015
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